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Criticisms of Atlas Shrugged

Here are some criticisms of Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged.

First, I think I’ve found a mistake. The antagonist James Taggart’s wife, Cherryl Brooks, says to the protagonist, Dagny Taggart, who is James’s sister:

“You know, Miss Tag—Dagny,” she said softly, in wonder, “you’re not as I expected you to be at all. . . . They, Jim and his friends, they said you were hard and cold and unfeeling.”
“But it’s true, Cherryl. I am, in the sense they mean—only have they ever told you in just what sense they mean it?”
“No. They never do. They only sneer at me when I ask them what they mean by anything . . . about anything. What did they mean about you?”
“Whenever anyone accuses some person of being ‘unfeeling,’ he means that that person is just. […]”

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged (p. 889). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

While it is true James treats Cherryl poorly in general, her claim that James and his friends “never” explain “what they mean by anything” is a lie.

Only a few pages before (p. 884), James Taggart does explain to her what he means. His explanation even matches his sister’s (the part about justice). Cherryl asks him:

“Do you want . . . love . . . to be . . . causeless?”

His response:

“[…] What’s the generosity of loving a man for his virtues? What do you give him? Nothing. It’s no more than cold justice. No more than he’s earned.”

When James accuses her of not understanding, she responds that she does:

“Oh, you don’t understand!”
“Yes, Jim, I do. […]”

Is this Cherryl’s or Rand’s mistake? I think it’s Rand’s mistake because it doesn’t serve the plot in any way if it’s Cherryl’s mistake.

This is different from, say, the writers of The Cleveland Show purposely having the character Cleveland say “magnus opus” (as opposed to the correct ‘magnum opus’) as a (highbrow) way of showing that he’s not very educated. This serves to showcase his character. The mistake I explain above, on the other hand, does not showcase Cherryl’s character. So I think it was an oversight on Rand’s part: she wanted to make James Taggart less likable by having a character accuse him of never explaining what he means. She just didn’t realize that this accusation is false.

By the way, in regards to when Dagny says (emphasis added):

Whenever anyone accuses some person of being ‘unfeeling,’ he means that that person is just. […]”

Saying that this applies to anyone anytime is saying too much. For example, people accuse animal abusers of being unfeeling, and they’re not saying animal abusers are just. It would be better to say ‘when someone is accused of being ‘unfeeling’, the accuser usually or often means that that person is just’.

Similarly, a bit later, Dagny says (emphasis added):

[Y]ou never hear that accusation in defense of innocence, but always in defense of guilt. You never hear it said by a good person about those who fail to do him justice. But you always hear it said by a rotter […].

p. 889

No good person has ever accused unjust people of having no heart? That’s hard to believe. For example, victims of crimes accuse judges or juries who falsely exonerate defendants of having no heart because they fail to serve justice.

[H]e wondered only what was the point of uttering it.

p. 305

Shouldn’t the word order be ‘what the point of uttering it was’?

Character John Galt says to comply. But then he doesn’t comply when they’re torturing him (he doesn’t agree to manage the economy). Why not? Isn’t he being hypocritical?

Rand thinks politicians are parasitic dunces, yet she wants them in charge of the military, the police, and the courts. Why would she want society to depend on idiots?

Character Hank Rearden is brought to trial for breaking a law. He refuses to volunteer a defense. The judge then says:

“But the law compels you to volunteer a defense!”

p. 479

I’m not a lawyer, but I’m told that courts don’t compel people to volunteer a defense. The court would record that no plea was given and assign a plea of not guilty.

Rearden wants to show the contradiction inherent in unjust laws: you cannot ‘compel someone to volunteer’ anything. As I wrote in the question that’s on the page linked above, “I believe the core concept that is being invoked here is that of the sanction of the victim. Unjust laws rely on this sanction to work, and so not giving one’s sanction renders them impotent. The ‘fair share’ law for which Rearden is being tried is one such unjust law.”

And: “The court, having been exposed, gets self-conscious because it doesn’t want to be seen as a violent institution. It lets him off with a slap on the wrist.”

As a device, this works. But note that, in real life, judges would just laugh this sort of ‘defense’ out of court. Someone had commented – though the comment seems to have been removed since – that judges don’t care about public perception, they care about the consistent application of the law. (Some judges do care about public perception but shouldn’t.)

It would have been better had Rand chosen an example that would translate to the real world.

One of the central themes of the book is that productive people should go on strike because their achievements will just be used against them. I don’t think Ayn Rand ever went on strike. Why not? Does that make her a hypocrite?

As far as I can tell, Rand did live in accordance with the message of her book The Fountainhead. She never compromised on her values, didn’t live a secondhanded life. So why not live in accordance with the message of Atlas Shrugged – why not shrug?

Some of the people responding to the linked question say that things were never bad enough for Rand to go on strike herself – which then begs the question, when would they be? And if someone in the real world decided that having half his earnings stolen from him every month is incompatible with his self-esteem, would she hold it against him?

Discussion tree

AFAIK, no one, including Rand and other objectivists, has ever tried to build something like Galt’s gulch – a place where the best people can go to associate and recharge, and to escape government oppression. Why not? Isn’t that hypocritical, too?

John Galt says there are no laws and no rules in his gulch. But that isn’t true: people have to swear an oath to get in. There’s also the rule of not faking reality in any way.

As with Cherryl Brooks above, this strikes me as Rand’s mistake, not Galt’s, as it wouldn’t serve the plot in any way if it were Galt’s mistake.

Overall, I thought the book was too long and sometimes repetitive (eg there are too many instances of people being emotionally repressed). It probably could have been shortened significantly and still have gotten the same ideas across.

But I liked it and I recommend it, though people should read Rand’s non-fiction first because it’s easier to understand her philosophy that way; her non-fiction is more explicit. For example, I didn’t understand some of the passages about psychologizing in Atlas Shrugged until I read Rand’s essay ‘The Psychology of Psychologizing’ in her book The Voice of Reason where she goes over those passages (providing enough context for them to make sense without having read Atlas Shrugged first). I did read The Virtue of Selfishness before reading Atlas Shrugged and I think it helped because VoS lays out core concepts explicitly and then AS applies them through characters and their actions.

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